In a country with no public cinemas and where only a few films have been shown to the public in more than three decades, it is a radical step: A group of filmmakers in Saudi Arabia has launched a secret cinema group, showing their own films that explore social and political issues such as women’s rights, the lives of migrant workers, urbanization and the belief in black magic.
On Thursday last week, after evening prayers, more than 60 people attended the first screening by the Red Wax secret cinema in a large warehouse in the southwestern city of Abha. Directed to the clandestine event by text message, they crowded inside the hired space, which was then bolted shut.
Most sat on cheap red plastic chairs placed in rows before a makeshift screen made from a large white sheet, but as the audience was larger than the organizers had expected, some stood. As the lights dimmed, nervousness gave way to quiet anticipation and in silence they watched a film about the lives of migrant workers on one of the country’s major building projects. After the screening the audience discussed the issues it raised and the ban on cinema in the kingdom.
“I was really nervous; everyone was nervous,” said the film’s director, one of the founders of Red Wax. “We didn’t have a plan if [police came]. Everyone parked away from the place. We sent them directions by text message to their mobile phones or rang them. Our fears are just to get caught or sent to jail.”
Cinemas were shut down in 1975 after the assassination of King Faisal, who was criticized for introducing TV to Saudi Arabia. Religious conservatives consider cultural activities such as films and concerts to be immoral and against Islamic values.
There were signs of liberalization with the launch in 2006 of the annual European film festival in Jeddah, which shows films to a select audience in embassies and consulates. The first official Saudi film festival followed in May 2008 in the eastern city of Dammam, although it has not been repeated. Later that year the comedy Menahi, financed and produced by King Abdullah’s billionaire nephew Prince Waleed bin Talal’s Rotana media, became the first film, apart from a few children’s cartoons, to be shown publicly for 30 years when it ran for barely a week in Jeddah and nearby Taif.
However, there was a backlash following its more limited screening in the capital Riyadh, with hardliners issuing a fatwa against cinemas in July 2009 that led the government to ban their construction.
The collective of five filmmakers — four men and one woman — said Red Wax referred to the official stamps used to restrict freedoms in the kingdom, although one member added it is also a strong kind of local cannabis resin. The first event was only open to men, with the audience including students, writers and artists aged from 20 to 40. Women will be invited to future events, scheduled to take place in other cities and organized via social networking Web sites to attract a wider audience.
The director of the first film shown said: “Saudi people love cinema. People drive to Bahrain at the weekend just to see films or fly to Dubai. You can see thousands of films on pirate DVDs for US$2 or US$3. You can download on BitTorrent or see it on satellite TV. You cannot imagine how much filesharing there is.”